Gaming today is a lot different from what it used to be in the olden days. Most genre’s have evolved with the time, though one may argue that the current form of many genres (FPS Rehash, RPG with no writing or character development, 3rd person adventure where each enemy and level is more forgettable than the last) just isn’t all that great of an improvement. I’m not sure that any genre has suffered more than MMOs. Massive Multiplayer Online games have gone from rare risky investments that gave players a truly different take on gaming to common “free to play” templates filled to the brim with microtransactions churned out en masse in an attempt to make a quick buck on the addictive personality of many gamers. Or maybe I’m just a jaded old fart that can’t seem to pry the nostalgia goggles off my face.
Before we talk about where we are today, let’s go back in time to take a look at where we came from. The MMOs of yesteryear if you will. Skipping MUDs for now, as that’s another article entirely, we’ll start with Ultima Online. The “Original” MMORPG. This particularly brutal old game from ’97 really paved the way for the current MMO market we have today. It’s popularity lead other companies to make the dangerous investment of a great deal of time and resources to create other MMOs that people might not even want to play. Back then with the untested waters of MMOs it was a big risk to create something like this. But companies saw players enjoying the game so much, as the first MMO to ever gain 100,000 subscribers, others decided they wanted in on a piece of the action.
Though before we move on I have to acknowledge one of the best lines related to MMOs, and gamers in general. Known as the Lord British Postulate due to the fact that Richard Garriott’s (Creator of Ultima Online) character Lord British was assassinated during a stress test. “If it exists as a living creature in an MMORPG, someone, somewhere, will try to kill it.” Coined by Mike Schramm of WoW Insider and Joystiq fame.
Soon to follow we had Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot. Two games that took on a more graphically impressive game style and soon had tens of thousands of players under their wing. These early games were quite popular, I even recall the very thing that got me into Everquest was an ad on some old VHS that I can’t even remember the name of. The games were huge, hard, and very very fun. Which is why when World of Warcraft was released with another round of graphical improvements, an easier UI and play style it opened up the doors for not just thousands, but millions of players. The original World of Warcraft (affectionately known as vanilla WoW now) took features from the old games and improved on them. Gaining the unheard of ten million subscribers at one point. And that I think, was the beginning of the end.
It seems like after WoW‘s release the only thing that anyone could produce is an uncreative off shoot of it. Taking a few things here and there, reducing the difficulty or overall experience in hopes that toning down certain parts would lead to as many subscribers or more than WoW. Everything was about beating WoW, every MMO after was touted as the “WoW Killer” and subsequently fizzled away into obscurity or kept alive on life support by hardcore fans. To me, the only true WoW Killer, is WoW itself. The challenge was taken away from the game one expansion after another. The last time I really had any fun was the start of the Burning Crusade, even though I came back a few times to try the game out again, the magic was lost. I never again felt the rush of exploring Booty Bay, getting in fights with the other faction, getting along with another faction player so well that when a higher level inevitably came by to kill me they do their best to try and stop them. Jumping around in front of the player and emoting their fingers off. Never again would I visit a capitol city and marvel at the raiders armor who would regularly spend 6-10 hours raiding in order to gain incredible Tier level armor. Or the elite few PvPers who would manage to climb the near impossible ladder to the top and be rewarded with a special PvP set that very very few would ever own.
I found MMOs kept falling apart on the challenge. That they focused too much on graphics, or bite off more then they could chew without instances or trying to cram too many players on one field or server. Games like Age of Conan, and Warhammer Online tried and quickly failed to spark the interest of long term WoW players, and MMO players in general. But whether gamers were becoming more jaded or the games just weren’t that good objectively, most MMOs flopped like fish out of water while standing in the shade of Blizzard’s Behemoth. That was until gaming companies started picking up on something that would make even their unpopular attempts slightly more profitable. And that was to make them Free to Play with microtransactions.
Microtransactions have become more prevalent in nearly every form of gaming. Wildly ranging from corrupt Pay-to-Win games to purely cosmetic items. Though many games are finding a medium between cosmetic items and items that free players can earn with a little time investment. Eve Online took some flak after it came to light that they were selling what amounted to a $70 cosmetic item. Thanks to the success of F2P games and MMOs we’re seeing more and more of them every day. It’s almost strange to find something that doesn’t have an ugly F2P MMO attached, or some fallen MMO once heralded as the mythical WoW Killer find itself F2P and bleeding players like there’s no tomorrow.
So with MMOs seemingly unable to stand on their own two feet these days, is it really the games fault? Do we simply have too high expectations? What is the MMO market doing now? Recently we’ve seen a rise in F2P “Action” MMORPGs, where the player will take on the role of a customizable template of a person and go from instance to instance in a faster paced style game. Games like Vindictus and Warframe, are actually pretty fun; but they suffer from one major problem. Repetitiveness. The same levels, the same enemy over and over again it gets old pretty quickly. Though I hope to see in the future a game like those that can harness the power of user created content. Giving players the ability to create and tweak levels, would end up with some genuinely impressive results (along with a metric fuckton of nothing). City of Heroes did this back in the day, user created more content in 24 hours than the developers did in five years. Most importantly thanks to the custom enemy creator more than 70% of content had custom enemies. Crowd sourcing is an immensely powerful tool that more MMOs and games need in general.
But I digress, to me, MMOs these days just aren’t fun. The adventure of the world is gone, the rumors of special rare beasts are no where to be found, glitchy unappealing gameplay or buggy worlds meet us wherever we go. Any hint of challenge that may have one existed now replaced with casual repetitive grinding. Various Sandbox MMOs have come and gone claiming to give the user the old sense of adventure and challenge. Though that has almost never been the case. With the exception of perhaps Wurm Online and Eve Online there really isn’t anything out there worth playing. Hopefully some intrepid company will be able to pull it off in the future, but for now we’re playing the waiting game hoping something decent will pop up.
Subscription MMOs these days are really hurting, we’ve seen a few die off and fall into obscurity, while others like SWTOR end up going F2P very quickly after launch. Leading clueless retailers selling games that are actually now free, or even worse defunct (ala city of heroes) Earlier I mentioned Richard Garriott and Ultima Online, it all hasn’t gone perfect for him as another MMO he tried called Tabula Rasa. It’s reception was so bad, I actually ended up finding the collectors edition in a five dollar bin (I still have a coin that I got from it), less than two years since it launch its servers shut down unceremoniously. It seems that these days MMOs live and die by the sword, or laser gun, or magic spell…you get the idea. Few able to keep their head above the water without microtransactions, fewer still showing much promise for a fun game in the future.
As I said before, perhaps I just have a serious case of nostalgia goggles. Perhaps I just can’t appreciate for the way MMOs play today because I’m so hung up on the past. Because nothing can live up to the memories that I have. Or that my expectations are just so far out of whack that I should simply expect character killing glitches or buggy monsters on launch, a month after, six months, a year, or two years later. Maybe I’m just far too entitled for my own good. Maybe it’s time for me to hang up my MMO hat and simply give up on the genre. Or maybe…just maybe, there’s some merit in what I’ve been saying, maybe it’s the same way others feel. Maybe we just need to keep holding out and find ourselves sucked into some future MMO wondering where it has been all these years. Maybe, just maybe.